By Tim Peters
A 10 year-old North Korean refugee boy hiding in China, made a sobering decision that was light years away from what most other elementary 4th graders are preoccupied with--a life-and-death gamble to cross the China-Mongolian border under the cover of darkness.
His name was Yoo Chul Min and his decision resulted in a heart-rending tragedy. Joining five other North Koreans, also desperate for even a fleeting glimpse of freedom, Chul Min and his companions became disoriented for 26 hours in the arid, desert-like conditions of the Mongolian frontier. Years of gradual malnutrition in North Korea had weakened Yoo Chul Min's body and the normal reserve of endurance and resistance to the elements one would expect of a healthy preteen boy were sadly lacking. Yoo Chul Min died from exhaustion and exposure. His body was carried across the Mongolian border by the remaining refugee team when they finally gained their bearings.
Perhaps I've taken a particular interest in this story because it so happened that Chul Min and my paths crossed in the course of my work in Helping Hands Korea. I had met and just begun getting to know this 10 year-old on two occasions, shortly before his death, this year. At the time, he was under the protection of courageous Korean missionaries in the Yenbian (ethnic Chinese-Korean region) district of northeast China.
I remember noticing how withdrawn this boy was. Because he had lived in China for over a year, he did not immediately strike me as malnourished and his clothes were clean. I noticed with some amusement that he would never take off his baseball cap, even inside the house of my friend. My curiosity grew into a little personal challenge to spend some time with him and see if I could find a way to break through that shell of suspicion of foreigners and get a friendship started.
I was told by those caring for him that Chul Min was very studious and doing well in a Chinese elementary school. One day in June of this year, I happened to spot on the missionary's bookshelf the Korean version of a book that I had read countless times with my own five children, in English, as they were growing up, The Picture Bible. Despite his initial reluctance to sit down next to a dreaded American, Chul Min's curiosity about the book seemed to get the upper hand, and soon we were leafing through the wonderfully illustrated volume together and he was eagerly reading the Korean text aloud. It became the bridge for what I hoped would be a real friendship. Little did I realize at that time, that death was only a month away for my little newfound friend.
In the days that followed the jarring news of Chul Min's sudden death, despite our urgent entreaties, the security officials in Mongolia did not agree to wait for Chul Min's father, himself a recent arrival to the South from China, to arrive in Ulan Bator to identify his son's body and to be present at his burial. (The following photo shows Chul Min's father shortly after seeing his son's grave on the barren Mongolian desert.)
Our grassroots organization, Helping Hands Korea (also known locally as the Ton-a-Month Club) is determined to prevent the recurrence of this tragedy in the lives of other North Korean children. We have, since October of 1996, sought to relieve the suffering of the most needy and vulnerable North Koreans. This initiative has evolved into a two-pronged project:
(1) assisting North Korean refugees, especially children and teenagers, in China and other 'third countries' to which they have fled. This past year my wife and I have made three trips to the refugee area, including two times with a doctor to provide medical care as well as financial and moral support.
(2) We continue to help support highly transparent humanitarian aid projects within hard-hit regions of North Korea itself, provided the deliveries of foodstuffs, medicine, etc. can be verified with accuracy.
Our organization sponsored its 7th charity concert. Entitled the Yoo Chul Min Memorial Concert, this charity event featured the considerable talents of The Irish Ramblers and Style. With the gracious and generous help of the management of the Westin Chosun Hotel, we welcomed not only donors to our effort, but also approximately 15 North Korean young former refugee friends of ours who had been spared the tragic fate of Yoo Chul Min and had been able to safely make their way from their own impoverished country to third countries and finally to South Korea. This was indeed a remarkable interaction between donors and very thankful and newly resettled North Korean young people.
Tim Peters with young resettled N. Koreans.
As another bitterly cold winter approaches North Korea, we ask you to join us in our ongoing quest to prevent the loss of other precious lives like Yoo Chul Min.
Tim Peters is the Project Manager of Helping Hands Korea, which was formerly associated with FCF.